Friday, June 16, 2006

Raised from the Stones

A thin thread of hope, the smallest glimmer of light at the end of what appears to be the longest tunnel in the world…

Eteraz, he of the fiery disposition, has found his way out of the cave. Not content to sit and watch the shadows on the wall and claim them as his reality, our friend has walked out into the daylight, pointed at The Book, and demanded that the words contained therein be examined on their own merits, not by the literalism that plagues his fellow religionists.

It takes and strength and courage to struggle past the barriers of fundamentalism and concrete thinking.

One of the charming aspects of Eteraz’ blog is his fund of childhood stories. They have an immediate appeal, both in his description of his devout childhood’s lost faith and his naughty escapades — e.g., diverting the money given to him for religious instruction into more compelling acquisitions, like toys and candy. Christian boys have done likewise since time immemorial: coins destined by parents for the collection plate went instead to candy or Cokes, sustenance for the long walk home.

Eteraz has a checkered spiritual past. Like many college sophists, he wandered awhile in the thickets of atheism before returning to his spiritual home. This meander in the desert probably did him good. It usually does.

As outsiders, we can’t pretend to understand Islam. However, we can peer at its essentials and see in them some of the universals that enspirit all religious impulse. And we can see in Eteraz’ struggles with the limits of his scripture our own wrestling with the Pentateuch (for some) or Paul’s epistles (for others).

Porky PigFor Eteraz, the contradiction arose between his own lived experience and what he heard his fellow Muslims say. In particular, he took issue with the declaration that Jews are apes and pigs. These were not the Jews he knew.

I have a lot of respect for the Jewish tradition (whatever that is). To me, it is Moses and Maimonides and Spinoza and Marx and Levinas and Buber and Brandeis and Derrida. I have taken in as much Bellow in my life as I have Bukhari (the hadith scholar). As much Itzhak Perlman as I have Rumi.

Qurious GeorgeThus, like any religious pilgrim, Eteraz began his journey through his scripture, trying to make sense of the description he was hearing from respected Muslim leaders: Jews are apes and pigs.

On the grapevine I heard that Shaykh Tantawi, head of the Al-Azhar University, the purported fount of Sunni learning, had made public statements about the Jews being descendents of apes and pigs. I then found confirmation that other leading Muslim scholars were propounding this view, including none other than the designated Imam of the Holy Kaba in Mecca: Shaykh Sudais (who strangely weeps through his entire prayers).

How to extricate himself from this hermeneutic tangle? Eteraz found his solution in Shakespeare, that is, in metaphor and allusion used to elucidate a numinous reality. Looking carefully at the Koran, he found this:

2:65 for you are well aware of those from among you who profaned the Sabbath, whereupon We said unto them, “Be as apes despicable!”

Here Eteraz was on firmer exegetical ground.

That “as“ I knew quite well: “So am I as the rich, whose blessed key can bring him to his sweet locked up treasure” said Shakespeare. It was the “as” — the blessed “as” — of metaphor! I rejoiced a hundred times over. A metaphor means that the finality of language is absent. Being “as” something is not the same as being something. Could it be that the Quran was engaged in metaphor-making? If references to apes and swines were metaphors, it meant that the people being referred to had expressed the qualities of an “ape” and the qualities of a “pig.” Given the fact that in classical Arabic an ape was someone impulsive and a pig was someone stubborn, the metaphors seemed almost innocuous (Especially since in all languages animals are used as referents for certain qualities. Once we could learn what qualities classical Arabic invoked when referring to those animals, we could understand what the metaphor was referring to.

How many Christians, caught between their knowledge of physics and Genesis’ explanation of the Big Bang — the Biblical story being a rather pedestrian account when compared to the modern scientific faith concerning our cosmogony — have given up at this point? What they don’t see is that Genesis is explaining the how only in order to get to the why. Physics doesn’t deal with why, it merely posits how the heavens go, while Genesis ponders how to go to heaven.

Eteraz’ struggle was much the same. How to reconcile what he read in the Koran and what was written in his heart? His reliance on metaphor was fragile, and he knew it. So this time he decided he “was not reliant upon any authority except that of my God given reason. Suddenly I started to see patterns in the Quran that further cast light on these questionable (and certainly questionably used) verses.”

He went to his mother with the translated verses, but she merely shrugged. A friend tried to comfort him by pointing out that at least apes and pigs shared genetic material with human beings. As I said previously, Eteraz is intelligent. He also has the instincts of a bulldog. Giving up on outside help, he got a copy of the Koran translated by Leopold Weiss, a Jew who converted to Islam and became Muhammad Assad. It was Assad who permitted Eteraz to reconcile scripture and experience.

Most importantly, Eteraz exhorts us to refuse the easy temptation of abstraction and theory. As he notes,

Anti-semitism is rife in the Muslim world. It is rife in European Muslim youth. In Iran and Pakistan. Muslims have to take accountability for this. They have to excavate and upturn their tradition to rid it of the stranglehold of the maulvis who do not have the intellectual facility, or interest, to assure that Islam conforms to its humanistic impulse. Free it from those who turn metaphors into literalism.

He is absolutely right when he says,

The Jews are the most persecuted race on the face of the earth. Yet, that has not stopped the Jews from extending a helpful and supportive hand to all other races. I freely admit that part of the impetus in writing this article has been the friendship of Jewish people such as Annie. In my opinion, no people have had more moral clarity than the Jews. While Muslims are free to disagree with Jews upon matters of politics and policy, they must not compromise their integrity, nor compromise the humanity of the Jews.

Jesus said we must love our God with our whole heart, our whole mind, and our whole spirit, and that we must love one another as we love ourselves. Eteraz rightly points out:

God gave reason to the Muslim; it is the Muslim who has forgotten what he possesses. Almost seems at times that some magician has said to the Muslim “Be you stone.”

In the Hebrew scripture, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt (or stone) for looking back during her hurried journey away from Sodom’s destruction. Eteraz’ use of this metaphor of stone is apt in the case of Islam vs. Modernity. If Islam cannot find the required intellectual and spiritual humility to look forward, rather than being stuck in an illusory past, it will fossilize.


FluffResponse said...

I flopped around the Eteraz site, which includes the article that seems to have been of particular interest:

Good try. Should I leave it at that? Or should I say what is in my heart, though doing so may be a case of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good?

Islam's "humanistic impulse" is being much overstated. The purpose of Muhammed's religion is to provide a justification for an "us against them" unity in the Arabian desert and beyond.

Best that the religion never was; second best that its adherents use their connection with the West to find a way out of it altogether.

Yes, we need a connection to the Deity, and Islam's simple ways (the five pillars) have their beauty. But the sixth and seventh pillar, the calls to physical, this-worldly jihad and the intended treatment of dhimmis make the religion a threat, however you try to explain it all away. (The jizya was only for Muhammed? But Muhammed is the example for all mankind. His treatment of the Quraiza, for example, is what it is; and it isn't based on a "humanistic impulse." The jizya is to be accompanied by humiliations; were those also for Muhammed alone?)

Muslims are unlikely to ever accept Christianity, with its seeming polytheism; or Hinduism; or Judaism (which is closer, but is a complex of ritual that is like opera, an acquired taste). Buddhism? Zoroastrianism? Confucianism?

The Unitarian Church might be a home, though I think that the only belief there is "no more than one God"!, which is probably not sufficiently nourishing.

It will be interesting to see where Eteraz stands in years to come. I just don't think that a man of conscience and insight can stay in the cage of a belief system that gives enormous respect to a thieving mass murderer.

Sad to say, Eteraz cannot explain it all away.

Baron Bodissey said...


Yes, that's the correct link. If you look in the paragraph next to Porky, you'll see a link to that post.

OreamnosAmericanus said...

Marx? He may be part of Jewish tradition, but he was an antiSemite and the cause of some of the worst suffering in human history. If you want him, you can have him, but I'm amazed.

Papa Ray said...

One man's journey to try and find faith is good...good for him alone.

Making it anything else is just being PC and ignorant of the true nature of religion.

Most of all with Islam.

Islam can not be made to suit someone's ideas or hopes. Islam can not be modified nor inturpeted, upon the promise of a cruel death.

Islam is the word of Allah, which is not actually true, but the word of a single man, who's writings and inspiration can not be proven nor documented.
This man inspired the writings of the Qur'an which was then written by many. Most writings were discarded or banished over the years, ending up with one which is now taken as the words of Allah.

Such is Islam, wrote in the stone of millions of Muslims, who can not change it, even if they wanted. Those that want to, will be cast out at the least, murdered by the most radical.

Islam is the enemy, not the Muslims, from those that try to find the truth to those that believe the lies.

Papa Ray
West Texas

RD said...

Nor does Eteraz deal with the bulk of reality as conveyed in the Koran or the Hadith.

So what if the Koran - when vast tracts of bloody violence are ignored - allows the re-parsing of a single phrase that invites contemplation of the possibility of metaphor? The example of Mohammed himself is still indelibly printed on history: even if we interpret the phrase as metaphor, Mohammed didn't.

Eteraz still has to go against the prophet in order to effect any meaningful change (at least from our perspective). Until the jihad, the jizya, and the inherent inequality of humans is abolished, there is no solution to the problem.

As long as (1) there no independent sense of right and wrong, only what is halal and haram; (2) believing in and defending another faith is haram; and (3) Islam empowers its followers to judge crimes against it not in the next life, but in this one; then we are not safe.

In Russet Shadows said...

The question isn't one of fundamentalism vs. textual relativism (which really, is what lies behind all so-called attempts to "liberalize" texts). The issue is one of competing concepts of absolutes.

What does Islam hold to be fundamentally true? The "as apes and pigs" verse is fundamentally understood as a metaphor, because that's what the text says. Now what does the malediction mean in Islamic thought? Apparently it means that it's open season on the accursed! So there are apparently other texts that construct the Islamic world view and lead to that. Ersatz is gutsy, but he does have a ways to go.

Kiddo said...

One linguistic note. I did discover that "Eteraz" is a Farsi word (well, I had realized that already) meaning "Objection", but a bit stronger than that meaning. "More akin to "strong objection", or to paraphrase Demi Moore in "A Few Good Men", "strenuous objection". Just another aspect to the character of Ali Eteraz.

Fellow Peacekeeper said...

I must say that I am not impressed. He wakes up and realizes that something is wrong, except he doesn't really realise and .... the guy is just plain confused. Around and around he meanders without being able to really find much of any meaning, or realising the bleeding obvious (that the entire koran is a pile of 7th century goat droppings, meaningfull only in that it is believed by millions of losers). Take the following paragraph from his text :

"I have a lot of respect for the Jewish tradition (whatever that is). To me, it is Moses and Maimonides and Spinoza and Marx and Levinas and Buber and Brandeis and Derrida."

He respects the Jewish tradition, can't say what it is - but respects it anyway. Somehow that includes one prophet of ten commandments, several serious philosophers, a couple less notable, Marx (Marx ....MARX?!) and the reprehensible Jaques Derrida. No surprise that he can't say what tradition it is. Very Derrida.